Nearly two months into his job as the new dean of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, Sunil Kumar sits in an office with a bird’s eye view of the dramatic façade of the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on one side and an architectural masterpiece by Frank Lloyd Wright on the other. Everywhere, snow is piled high, evidence of a brutal Midwestern winter.
Inside his expansive rectangular corner office, the beige walls are still blank, with not a single picture frame or painting on them. Most of the bookshelves are empty, even though Kumar’s official start day was Jan. 3. If he has made little time to move into his new home, it’s completely understandable. Kumar has one of the toughest leadership jobs in academia: he’s following the most successful business school dean of this generation at a school that has never been in better shape.
He succeeds a dynamic visionary, Edward “Ted” Snyder, who left the school with a brand new $125 million state-of-the-art building as well as the richest endowment in its history—some $511 million, a sum that even excludes a $300 million gift Snyder brought in from alumnus David Booth in 2008. The Booth pledge alone is the largest single gift ever made to a business school as well as the largest donation to the University of Chicago in history.
During his nine years as dean, Snyder tripled student scholarships, doubled the school’s endowed faculty chairs, and retained more senior faculty than any other Chicago dean in the past 50 years. The quality and diversity of Chicago MBAs has significantly improved, with average GMATs of enrolled students now 715, up from 687, and women representing 35% of the class, up from 27%.
No less crucial, under Snyder, Chicago has been named the best U.S. business school three consecutive times in the highly influential rankings of MBA programs by BusinessWeek. The year before he arrived in 2001, Booth had sunk to a lowly rank of 10. By 2006, it captured the number one spot. Poets&Quants ranks Booth third, behind only Harvard and Stanford among the best B-schools in the U.S.
So for Kumar, 43, there is no turnaround to accomplish. In fact, there are no visible challenges to overcome—only the danger that Chicago could coast on Snyder’s achievements, resist more innovative changes to its curriculum, and ultimately fall in the rankings. “To me, this is a call for deliberate action,” insists Kumar. “Schools don’t stay terrific by sitting still. The lack of fires to fight gives me the luxury of being able to think strategically a few years ahead. That fits with my management approach. I am deliberative and inclusive. I act on data. I hate parachuting into a situation and saying here is the list of answers that I already worked out.”
TWO EARLY INITIATIVES: GREATER GLOBALIZATION AND A STRONGER ALUMNI NETWORK.
That said, Kumar says he already sees two potentially big opportunities: making Chicago more global and strengthening the school’s alumni network. He has put together a committee of senior faculty to assess Chicago’s global strategy and determine what, if anything, the school should do. “We want to consult widely, collect data on other schools and see how well they’re doing it,” he says. “We’ll see if we like where we are and what else we should be doing.”
And he says his early conversations with alumni have convinced him that the school can do much more to make its network of 45,000 alums more valuable to its graduates. “I was struck by the affection the alumni I met had for the school and how transformative they thought the University of Chicago was for them,” he says. “I think we can include them in the intellectual life of the school to a greater degree and to help strengthen their network. That is going to be another one of my medium-term objectives.”
An astute, soft-spoken academic, Kumar built his career as a serious scholar who plugged away on journal articles read by other academics. It’s likely that very little, if any, of his research has been read by a practicing manager or an executive. Indeed, most of his co-authored articles bear titles that would cause eyes to glaze. A couple of examples: ”Asymptotically Optimal Admission Control of a Queue with Impatient Customers” and “A Numerical Method for Solving Singular Stochastic Control Problems.” One of his favorite words is “data” which falls from his mouth at least a half a dozen times in less than an hour.